At each Philae Sound and Light show, the Egyptian gods and goddesses like Osiris, resurrected before our eyes to tell us their life stories. Could you imagine what would Isis say today if she learned that her temple was allowed to sit in water for many years? She would not be happy with this, but she would be proud to know that, like her husband Osiris, Philae was reborn so that new visitors can see the glory of Philae year after year.
When Amelia Edwards, the famous British travel writer, first visited Philae in 1873, her captivating words about the experience still apply today: “The approach by water is quite the most beautiful. Seen from the level of a small boat, the island, with its palms, its colonnades, its pylons, seems to rise out of the river like a mirage. Piled rocks frame it on either side, or the purple mountains close up the distance. As the boat glides nearer between glistening boulders, those sculptured towers rise higher and even higher against the sky. All looks solid, stately, perfect. One forgets for the moment that anything is changed. If a sound of antique chanting were to be borne along with the quiet air, if a procession of white-robed priests bearing aloft the veiled ark of the God, were to come sweeping round between the palms and pylons, we should not think it strange.
Like the Pyramids of Giza, Philae was a popular tourist spot for 18th and 19th-century travelers. When these people visited, they saw brightly painted walls and columns much like they were in ancient times. But Philae was submerged underwater after the Aswan Dam was built, and the brightly painted colors of Philae were gone forever. Luckily, a joint project between UNESCO and the Egyptian government rescued Philae from the Nile’s waters. The project occurred over a period of ten years, between 1970 and 1980. First, engineers constructed a large dam around the island of Philae. They then used powerful pumps to remove the water. After a painstaking process, the Philae temple was separated and labeled into 40,000 individual blocks and pieces. The entire temple was moved, piece by piece, to higher ground on another island and put back together like a jigsaw puzzle. The island where Philae was originally situated is now underwater in the murky depths of Lake Nasser. Even though today’s tourists cannot witness all of the original beauty of Philae, the temple itself is in amazing condition and it is easy to see why it was such an important temple for the ancient Egyptians.
The name Philae comes from the ancient Egyptian word Pilak, which means “the remote place.” Philae was the southernmost place in Egypt and the last outpost of the 4000-year-old ancient Egyptian religion. During the Greco-Roman period, Philae was a sacred island and an important cult center dedicated to Isis. Isis, her husband Osiris, and their son Horus are the three most important figures in ancient Egyptian mythology. Their story is like one of Shakespeare's tragedies. A small argument between Osiris and his brother Set grew into a large battle between the two brothers. Set killed Osiris, then cut the body of Osiris into many pieces and scattered them around Egypt. Isis, ever the dedicated wife, searched everywhere in Egypt until she found all the pieces of her husband’s body. With her magical powers, she brings Osiris back to life, and Isis gives birth to Horus. When Horus grew up and became a man, he avenged his father and killed Set. According to the legend, Philae is the place where Isis found the heart of Osiris, and she buried it on a nearby island. Isis was an important figure in the ancient world because she was the enchantress who resurrected Osiris and gave birth to their son Horus. She was known as a healer, a giver of life, and a protector of kings. Her legend was not only popular in the time of the ancient Egyptians. Her cult was spread throughout Greece and the Roman Empire, and later there was even a temple dedicated to her in London.